"3D doesnt just look and act like clothing does, it also holds the meta-data within it," says EFI Optitexs Landau

"3D doesn't just look and act like clothing does, it also holds the meta-data within it," says EFI Optitex's Landau

As well as offering new opportunities for apparel design and prototyping, 3D tools also have the potential to change the way retailers and brands interact with their customers.

"In this $1.3 trillion fashion industry, only about 10-11% is being bought online," explains Asaf Landau, general manager at software supplier EFI Optitex.

And the number one reason why this isn't higher "is that when people get it home it is not what they expected; it doesn't look and fit on them as they expected.

"But if they could see online exactly how something looks on their body, and when they get it home it actually looks and fits as it did online, it will 'gameify' their experience. And once they trust the look, and fit and colour then they'll start to buy a lot more online.

"This is the bottleneck that we need to open up to change the way people buy in this industry," he told a panel discussion at the recent PI Apparel (Product Innovation Apparel) event in New York.

For brands there are additional advantages in being able to track what people are trying on digitally. "You don't see what people try on in the dressing room," Landau notes.

"The amount of data that you're going to get about what people are trying and don't like will so influence your next season that [you will] dominate the others in terms of fit.

"In the end, the ones that do it in the most real way will be the ones that change their online penetration from 10% to 20% ­– that is a $130bn difference; it's so significant and such an advantage."

"The innovative retailers who exploit data to look for those lost sales opportunities and fill those gaps are the ones who will be the most successful as we move forward," agrees Ed Gribbin, president at industry consultancy Alvanon.

But he also cautions that when it comes to size and fit, America is the most diverse country in the world and it also happens to be the largest consumer market at the same time in terms of height, stature, body shape diversity, body mass, distribution, ethnicity.

"All of those things are challenges for retailers. When it comes to apparel, fit is still a big challenge. Most retailers are still in that zone of wanting to produce six or seven size SKUs and have them be as democratic as possible."

He also unveils what he calls the industry's "dirty little secret."

"No-one wants to lose a sale; they're not going to show the customer as realistically as possible that [something] is not going to fit. Many of the size prediction apps out there are going to tell you what is the closest size, as opposed to what is actually going to fit you, because it may not be something that you like that actually fits you."

Mass customisation

For Steve Madge, vice president of industry and global affairs at Dassault Systèmes, mass customisation is one of the main areas of future opportunity.

"Everybody wants to wear something different, buy something different, drive something different…[but] how can you order a suit, a dress, a pair of shoes, a car, if you haven't seen it before? You configure it.

"And in order to do that you need the digital equipment, the digital models. You start with your highest sold product or the product that typically gets carried over from season to season, you create your 3D form of that, and then you get into your 3D personalisation using your digital samples. That's where it's going, for which you can also charge quite a premium."

Landau, however, warns that while creating a mass customisation app for apparel online "is pretty simple," there can be a separation between what the consumer is engaging with and the rest of the supply chain.

That said, "one of the big advantages is that 3D doesn't just look and act like the clothing does, it also holds the meta-data within it: what clothing, what colour, pattern piece, 2D marker, efficiency.

"If you don't have that connection between what the customer is experiencing in 3D online and the 2D extrapolation of that for printing, for customising, for cutting, then you're going to have a scalability problem. You can do one-offs, you can maybe do a hundred of them, but get to 1000 and 10,000 and you start to have a problem."

Other next steps in the evolution of 3D design and visualisation are likely to see digital products spread throughout a fashion company all the way to distribution, marketing and retail – and even engaging consumers themselves in the decision-making process.

If shoppers can offer their feedback on ten different – digital – designs of a jacket, for instance, this gives the brand or retailer a good idea of what the consumer wants and is most likely to sell.

And by replacing physical stock with 3D digital photo-realistic images, retailers can also offer consumers an extended product assortment without increasing inventory or compromising on the quality of store displays.